MV Matafele

"Matafele," built at Hong Kong in 1938, was of 335 gross tons, length 115 ft beam 26 ft, twin screws and intended for the Burns Philp & Co. Ltd. Inter Island Trade. In January 1942 Matafele narrowly escaped capture by the Japanese Forces landing at Rabaul. She fled (for reasons of ship safety, sadly having to leave some evacuees behind) under cover of rainsqualls and reached Australia safely with evacuees, ahead of the Japanese advance.

R.A.N. Special notes of the event were:

"Burns Philp’s Matafele was the last allied ship to leave Rabaul before the Japanese occupation in January 1942, this voyage of evacuation with such a large number of civilians and Army and being overloaded and contravening all safety regulations, was the possible reason Capt. Williams was unable to stop and pick up those last out A.W.A. Wireless Operators. The vicinity these inter island vessels of Burns Philp and Co. were operating in was dominated by Japanese submarine naval and aircraft activity and it was not an area to remain in for too long with no sea or air support available.

Ted Bishton a Kavieng AWA operator and one of those left behind in Rabaul recorded in his Diary:- "Following the 20 January big air raid on Rabaul-110 Bombers, 10 Fighters-we decided on Thursday 22 January to leave Rabaul as 11 Japanese transports were anchored 3 miles offshore and were landing troops. The last messages were sent to Sydney and to the Navy at Port Moresby. They gave us the O.K. and wished us luck.

"When we left Rabaul we could see the small Iboki (12ton schooner) sailing down Simpson Harbour and thought if we could get to Cape Gazelle, which was about 30 miles away before the Iboki which had to pass within a couple of hundred yards of the Cape they could take us aboard. We then went to Kokopo and onto Ralum and sighted the "Iboki" about a mile out, we waved towels and singlets to attract attention they sighted us and to our relief turned in, when they were within a few hundred yards they turned out to sea again. We waved and shouted again and to our relief they came back. They told us the first time they thought we were Japs and turned out to sea again.

"After about half an hour we sighted the Matafele following us we decided to cut across Matafele's course and ask them to pick us up and take us to Samarai. It was just dusk when Matafele came up to us. We hailed Captain ( Taffy ) Williams a well known B.P. identity in Rabaul who asked us who we were. We told him we belonged to A.W.A., we were only 50 yards away and the next thing we heard was the clang order to the engine room ringing full ahead and Matafele was on her way telling us not to go back to Rabaul and leaving us behind."

Matafele then returned to Port Moresby and ran stores for the Allied Forces in the New Guinea Area. With the bombing of Darwin February 1942 and the port facilities now non existent, and no road link from Adelaide, the only means of supply to the armed forces to the north was by the shuttle service of small ships which was comprised mainly of the inter island fleet operating in waters now dominated by the Japanese.

Matafele is thought to have been sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Coral Sea in July 1944.

At this particular time there were 60 German and Japanese submarines serviced and operating from the Japanese base at Penang.Threats continued also from German Commerce Raiders in the area. For further information click on Lakatoi story.

In this hostile war environment and with only limited naval and air protection for allied merchant ships, the mainline and inter island vessels of Burns Philp played an integral part in the defence of Australia.

Mamutu, Matafele, Lakatoi,and Muliama were operating as supply ships to the Australian and U.S. Forces. Only one of these ships was recorded as being sunk by enemy action, the Mamutu, as there was one survivor to recount this episode.

Matafele and Lakatoi disappeared without trace, no survivors, no messages, and no evidence. These two ships have not been recorded as being lost by enemy action, however, given all the circumstances, this appears the only logical conclusion.